Oct 9, 2020 - World

Trump aiming for nuclear arms deal with Russia before Election Day

Trump and Putin the G20 last June. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The Trump administration is pushing to get a nuclear arms control agreement with Russia ready for President Trump and Vladimir Putin to apply their signatures before Election Day.

Where things stand: The U.S. believes the prospective deal has buy-in from Putin — who has discussed arms control on a series of phone calls with Trump — and could be negotiated in as little as a week, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

  • The Russians have not yet sounded such an optimistic note, or signaled they’re prepared to engage in such expedited negotiations.
  • The agreement would involve freezes on both countries' stockpiles of nuclear warheads, as well as a framework for a future multilateral arms control treaty.

The big picture: Election day is not the only deadline driving this process. New START, the last major bilateral treaty limiting the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, is due to expire on Feb. 5.

  • Putin wants to extend New START for five years. So does Joe Biden.
  • But Trump’s arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, has said the administration is only interested in extending New START — an Obama-era deal which the Trump administration has repeatedly criticized — in conjunction with a parallel agreement on the future of arms control.
  • Otherwise, he says, they'd be willing to see it lapse and gear up for a potential arms race.

The stakes: Russia knows that if Trump loses, it can expect Biden to agree to an extension shortly after taking office on Jan. 20.

  • But if Russia hasn't agreed to a deal by election day and Trump wins, America's asking price for New START extension will climb much higher, Billingslea told Russia's Kommersant newspaper.
  • The other side: His Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, told WSJ last week that the U.S. position is a non-starter, and Russia is prepared to expand its own nuclear arsenal if New START expires.

The latest: That deadlock may have broken following a meeting in Geneva last Friday between National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev.

  • After that discussion, meetings were arranged on Monday between Billingslea and Ryabkov, both of whom headed to Helsinki on short notice.
  • The U.S. now believes Putin and Patrushev have agreed in principle to a deal that could potentially be finalized by the Nov. 3 election, the source familiar with the discussions says. Russia has not publicly echoed those sentiments.

Breaking it down: The agreement the Trump administration is seeking would involve a freeze on all nuclear warheads, a framework for a future multilateral arms control treaty, and the extension of New START for up to five years.

  • One major sticking point is whether the framework agreement will explicitly mention China, which the U.S. insists must be constrained by any future arms control treaty.
  • Russia doesn’t object to bringing in China, but says any multilateral expansion of arms control should also include France and the U.K. The language of the agreement may have to be fudged to accommodate both positions.
  • Between the lines: The Trump administration had previously demanded that China take part in any arms control negotiations, before opening bilateral talks with with Russia in Vienna.
  • Details: Other sticking points relate to the precise definitions around the warhead freeze, the necessary verification procedures, and the terms and duration of the New START extension.

What to watch: Billingslea and Ryabkov are expected to speak by phone early next week — just three weeks prior to election day.

  • If the Russians agree to serious negotiations, the U.S. insists a deal could be struck in a week or so.
  • Billingslea previously told Axios that any deal would almost certainly be sealed by Trump and Putin themselves.
  • But it will be difficult to get the Russians to agree to anything on such a short timeline, and Putin may prefer to wait for the results of the election.
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